Home >Politics >Policy >Rain-ravaged Kerala heads for black Onam

Thiruvananthapuram/Palakkad: Legend has it that at the beginning of the Malayalam new year, demon king Mahabali visits Kerala to meet his beloved subjects from a prosperous past. It won’t be a pretty sight this time.

The mythical ruler is traditionally welcomed with flowers, fireworks and feasts, while men, women and children dress up in their finest to celebrate the festival of Onam. However, in the fortnight leading up to this year’s Onam, hundreds have been killed and thousands of people evacuated to relief camps, as the worst rains in a century battered the state. Flood waters gushing downstream have submerged vast parts of the state.

Rebuilding the state will require an herculean effort. The cost of reconstructing Kerala, where social indicators are on par with the developed world, is estimated to cost more than 50,000 crore, said a top state government official, requesting anonymity. “A minimum of 25,000 crore may have to be spent from the public purse, for rebuilding damaged roads, bridges and all, and to provide compensation to victims. The private sector may need 25,000 crore, to rebuild their damaged business and other losses," the official said.

Volunteers work at an aid distribution centre inside a stadium in Kochi on Sunday. Photo: Reuters
View Full Image
Volunteers work at an aid distribution centre inside a stadium in Kochi on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) has undertaken its biggest rescue operation yet, and the military and paramilitary men are out in full force. According to the state government, 194 people have lost their lives in the monsoon fury since 8 August, while 724,649 people live in relief camps, waiting for water to subside.

There is still a week to go for Thiruvonam on 25 August—the most important day of the 10-day festival—but celebration is the last thing on people’s minds as everyone from policymakers to commoners gets down to rescue and relief work. As water levels recede, new casualties have surfaced and there is fear of an outbreak of water-borne diseases.

On Saturday, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan assured there would not be any food or fuel shortage during Onam and that the buffer stock meant for the occasion is safe. “When the flooded roads are safe for travel, more food and essential materials will reach the state. There is no food or fuel shortage as of now," Vijayan said. Official Onam celebrations stand cancelled, and the state government will spend the funds meant for cultural programmes in relief work.

An elderly man wades through flood waters to reach a boat carrying food supplies for stranded people in Chengannur, Kerala, on Sunday. Photo: AP
View Full Image
An elderly man wades through flood waters to reach a boat carrying food supplies for stranded people in Chengannur, Kerala, on Sunday. Photo: AP

The Union government’s top crisis management team led by cabinet secretary P.K. Sinha is monitoring developments in the state, as the rescue operation involving multiple state, central and non-government agencies gets under way.

“Usually in the last weekend before Onam, you’d see this place full of women draped in traditional sarees and men in mundu (garment similar to dhoti with a golden border) and a shirt. This year, everyone is toiling at relief camps," said the head of a government department in state capital Thiruvananthapuram, requesting not to be named. Even in places unaffected by floods, schools, colleges and offices have scaled down Onam celebrations to the bare minimum of a flower carpet.

Cultural events that mark Onam will be off the calendar too. “This natural calamity is unprecedented and now, the entire focus is on rescue and relief operations," state cultural affairs secretary Rani George said in an interview.

Indian Air Force members conduct rescue and evacuation drive in flood-affected regions of Kerala on Sunday. Photo: PTI
View Full Image
Indian Air Force members conduct rescue and evacuation drive in flood-affected regions of Kerala on Sunday. Photo: PTI

Onam is the time when the state’s residents loosen their purse strings and hold auspicious ceremonies like weddings; however, consumption is set to take a big hit this time as the state struggles to get back on its feet. Agriculture and tourism, two contributors to the state economy, will be seriously affected. The impact on consumption could hurt consumer goods companies.

Business has been badly hit. Sales in the next three months will be less than half of the previous year, said Saji Kumar, chairman of Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) Kerala state council. CII has set up a task force led by its past president and Infosys Ltd founder Kris Gopalakrishnan to work out a rehabilitation package for victims. Kumar said in an interview that the industry association will adopt some of the affected districts and work to rebuild about 5,000 houses. It is also working with the state in relief measures at various camps, he said.

“We had increased production and had stored our produce in a warehouse in anticipation of Onam sales as usual. All of that—worth about 8-10 crore—has gone under water," said an executive of Eastern Condiments, a prominent spice and blended food maker, requesting not to be named.

Kerala and Tamil Nadu Fire Force personnel ferry children and elderly in a dinghy through flood waters during a rescue operation Thrissur’s Annamanada village Thrissur. Photo: AFP
View Full Image
Kerala and Tamil Nadu Fire Force personnel ferry children and elderly in a dinghy through flood waters during a rescue operation Thrissur’s Annamanada village Thrissur. Photo: AFP

A senior executive at a bank in Ernakulam said on condition of anonymity that one of his branches caught fire due to a short circuit, and another bank’s regional office server was damaged. These incidents, he said, will affect money supply, including through money routed through automated teller machines (ATMs). “Even officers are just getting back on their feet, after facing the flood themselves. We have 400 officers in our office, out of which two are still missing," he said.

However, with receding water levels, economic activity is picking up. Trucks can be seen in the less affected parts, slowly making their way.

While telecom companies have offered their customers in Kerala free data and calls, besides extended bill payment time, airlines have waived cancellation and rescheduling charges.

A large number of government employees are working at the camps or helping with rescue work, a top labour officer said, requesting not to be named. Private offices have reopened in cities, but attendance is down. Companies operating out of the state’s three software parks—Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, Infopark in Ernakulam and Cyberspace in Kozhikode—have asked employees to skip work and help at relief centres instead. Many employees at technology companies UST Global and Oracle, which operate at the Thiruvananthapuram Technopark, are out working at the camps, company spokespersons said.

Rescue personnel carry animal and elderly people to safety from flood waters during a rescue operation in Mala village in Thrissur on Sunday. Photo: AFP
View Full Image
Rescue personnel carry animal and elderly people to safety from flood waters during a rescue operation in Mala village in Thrissur on Sunday. Photo: AFP

The Kerala Merchants Chamber is bracing for a major loss. “Kerala is a big consumer market, and most of the consumption happens during Onam. Last year, we had about 1,500 crore sales; so we expected about 2,000-3,000 crore sales this year. Since no one is celebrating Onam and is in no mood to purchase, the entire 2,000-3,000 crore has to be calculated as loss," chamber president Yusuf Bismi said. His figure does not include losses in red goods sales, such as food. One wholesale dealer of rice in Aluva alone has suffered 20 crore losses, said Kerala Chamber of Commerce chairman Biju Ramesh. However, he said the state’s business community is relatively affluent and will bounce back.

According to a government official working on raising funds for the rescue and reconstruction, the government has raised 200 crore in individual donations so far. “But that is only a small part, we are planning to raise big money from private donors," a senior officer who is privy to the official talks on this matter, said on condition of anonymity.

Volunteers segregate flood relief material donated by general public to be sent to Kerala, in Chennai on Sunday. Photo: PTI
View Full Image
Volunteers segregate flood relief material donated by general public to be sent to Kerala, in Chennai on Sunday. Photo: PTI

Qatar has donated 35 crore and Sharjah 4 crore to the chief minister’s relief fund. The UAE has formed an emergency committee to raise assistance. Emigrants from the state living in West Asia are gathering funds too.

“Recovery will be slow. Almost all roads in 13 districts, which were on red alert for 48-plus hours, are damaged fully or partially. Once waters are down, we will make a plan for laying roads at least temporarily. Restoring damage on these roads permanently would require a huge sum of money and resources like metal and cement. It’s too early to comment on how we will manage that end; government machinery is fully concentrated on rescue and relief operations which has not ended as of now," said an official with the finance department, requesting anonymity.

Subscribe to newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Click here to read the Mint ePaperLivemint.com is now on Telegram. Join Livemint channel in your Telegram and stay updated

Close
×
My Reads Redeem a Gift Card Logout